Intelligent Design: Slowly Going Out of Style?

A survey suggests Americans are finding it easier to fit both science and religion into their understanding of the origins of man.

Since Gallup started polling Americans about the origins of man in 1982, creationists have stayed pretty faithful to their views. The numbers may fluctuate a bit from year to year, but for the past two decades, a little more than two-fifths of Americans have consistently said they believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so."

But among the ranks of evolution cheerleaders and intelligent design advocates, things are changing.

New survey data released last week revealed a record level of respondents who believe "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process"—a long way of saying "evolution." This group wasn't big—only 19 percent of people agreed. But that's still an increase of six percentage points since 2004, marking a steady upward climb over the last decade.

Intelligent design, on the other hand, seems to be on a mild downward trend. Like creationism, the theory has seen slight fluctuations in popularity since 1982, the year of the first polling data Gallup provides. But over the last four years, it dipped more than usual: In 2014, only 31 percent of people agree that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process," compared to 38 percent in 2010.

Popularity of Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design in American, 1993-2014

Despite this decline, trends hint that a small, fascinating change is happening among believers: Science and religion are seeming more compatible. If anything, Americans are only slightly less religious than they were a decade ago; today, 86 percent believe in God.

But people in the U.S. are pretty evenly split over how they interpret the relationship between their faith and the discoveries of science. In the survey, 46 percent of respondents said the theory of evolution is "consistent" with their religious beliefs; exactly 46 percent of respondents said just the opposite. This second group accounts for the creationism crowd; but everyone else seems willing to reconcile their beliefs about the nature of God with the nature of amoeboid development.

This is particularly interesting in the context of the poll's final question, which focused on the truthfulness of the Bible. Since 1976, Gallup has been asking people to say whether they think "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word; the Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally; or the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man." In 2014, a new choice was added: "The Bible is the actual word of God, but multiple interpretations are possible."

When half the sample was asked to pick from among the three original answers, 28 percent said the Bible is the literal word of God, 47 percent said it was inspired by God, and 21 percent said it's just a bunch of stories. But when the new answer was introduced, the results changed significantly: 22 percent said it's the actual word of God, 28 said it was inspired by God, 18 percent said it's made up—and 28 percent said that while it may be literal, it can be interpreted in multiple ways.

There's room for ambiguity in faith these days, it seems. Science doesn't have to negate God; one man's Bible interpretation doesn't invalidate another's. As evolution gains more and more traction, it won't be a "loss" for religion; it will be just be one more change in how modern Americans are learning to believe.